Mark Tobey developed as an artist through his friendship with Teng Baiye (1900–1980), a Chinese émigré, who studied art at the University of Washington in Seattle. Through Teng, Tobey later traveled to China and Japan, where he spent time in a Zen monastery and was exposed to sumi ink and calligraphy. He described the East as the place where he got his “calligraphic impulse” and also his desire to paint “the frenetic rhythms of the modern city, the interweaving of lights and streams of people who are entangled in the meshes of this net.” He captured both in Towards the Whites (1957). Here, using his “white writing” technique, Tobey painted white lines alongside bright reds, ochres, and vibrant yellows that seem to wriggle across the deep, dark void of the background. The lines appear to entangle in the center of the composition and to unravel along the painting’s edges.
Tobey’s interest in calligraphy was not unique; for Western artists such as Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and André Masson (1896–1987), it was a means of expanding an abstract idiom. For many critics during the postwar period, the joining of Eastern and Western visual tropes sutured the wounds caused when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Although Tobey’s work was interpreted with this in mind after World War II, he had actually begun his calligraphic abstractions as early as 1934. For Tobey, his calligraphic line communicated spiritual implications, which suggests that Towards the Whites engaged with the embrace of a universal humanity.
Mark Tobey is noted for his nonrepresentational works in multi-layered, allover brushstrokes that evoke Asian calligraphy. He began to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1906 to 1908, then worked as a fashion illustrator in New York and Chicago from 1911 onward. His early portrait drawings were presented in his first solo exhibition at Knoedler & Co., New York, in 1917. The following year he moved to Seattle, where he first came in contact with the Bahá'í faith and converted. His enduring interest in East Asian philosophy and aesthetics (Chinese calligraphy, Persian and Arabic script) was nurtured by his friendship with the Chinese painter Teng Kuei and his travels abroad. In 1925 Tobey left Seattle for Paris, then traveled in Europe and the Middle East for about two years. His journey to China and Japan in 1934 eventually led to the development of his “white writings.” These abstract compositions in a subdued palette, with dense layers of calligraphic lines, were first exhibited in 1944 at the Willard Gallery, New York. Tobey’s art has been featured in numerous solo and retrospective exhibitions since the early 1960s. He received the Guggenheim International Award (1956) and the International Award for Painting at the Venice Biennale (1958).